Friday, November 20, 2015

Blue-Footed Boobies, and Turtle Love Beach

20 November 2015  

On an island somewhere heading toward the middle of the ocean, one expects life to be influence by the sea. Fishing, sea food, boats, swimming, all that.

I find the myriad artworks portraying the fish and sea creatures to be amazing. Appropriate, but amazing.

We signed up for a boat trip to Pinzon Island (or Isla Pinzon) for Thursday. We picked Pinzon because it isn't too terribly far from Santa Cruz, so it wouldn't be 2 or more hours on the boat going over and returning. And Pinzon is one of the islands with a small group of penguins! They even have a bay named Penguin Bay on the island! (Bahia de Pingüinos) So we were all set for a penguin sighting! 

We were supposed to sail from Puerto Ayora on the south side of Santa Cruz, but the seas were strong (we were told exactly that), so we were driven to the north side of the island for what was presumably a bigger or stronger boat. The eight of us piled in - Richard and myself, and six 20-35 yr olds from the US, Denmark, England, and Australia. Plus our friendly Ecuadorean guide, Fabricio.  

We only went out about 15 minutes and stopped near a large rock jutting up out of the ocean - this was our first snorkel stop. It seemed that everyone else had been advised to rent a shorty wetsuit - Richard and I booked the tour through our hotel, and that information was lost in the translation. So we put on our fins and masks, Richard jumped in the water, and immediately climbed the ladder to come back into the boat. COLD!!!! Okay, so maybe 72 degrees F (21 C) - which is pretty cold after tropical Asia and the South Pacific. 

I didn't even try the water, we just stayed on the boat.

The captain tried catching fish - the birds were having a major feeding frenzy on the water, indicating schools of small fish, meaning tuna were probably in the area feeding on the small fish. He set up a pole, circled around trolling, while I took photos of the zillions of birds. We caught nothing, but it was exciting anyway.

The snorkelers had even more excitement: one of the young sea lions slipped off the rocks and swam over to greet the group, coming right up to them and saying hello! 

Fabricio got a wonderful underwater photo of the small sea lion blowing out bubbles as he approached one of the young men, with just the blue water surrounding them. Gorgeous photo! 

We had another snorkel opportunity at another small island or cay, though the water was deeper here, so we knew it would be colder. Richard and I passed on that, and just enjoyed the scenery. 

This was basically a bird nesting island. We saw some frigate birds sitting on their nests, the male birds with their large red neck bubble blown up so they looked like half bird/half balloon - really freaky looking, but a gorgeous red! Then white birds with black edges and a little black ring around their beak - they turned out to be masked boobies! And we could even see booby babies, smaller and fuzzier, without their feathers fully grown in!!!! Booby babies! How many people get to see that?!?!!?

And then, the birds everyone wants to see, the blue-footed boobies!!!! They're sort of a taupe color, sort of a grey beige or beige grey, vaguely in between. With an almost blue grey beak, and startlingly bright blue feet and legs!!!! (And a totally vacant look in their eyes - really, they look just confused, baffled, and surprised to find themselves wherever they are.)

Again, the snorkelers came back on board, we drove by the birds slowly so we could all look at them and get a few photos and marvel at the blue feet. There are also red-footed boobies, but they live on a different island.

Of course, the artist in me would like to know if the blues and the reds ever mate, and what color feet their offspring would have. If it were a simple matter of color, they'd have purple feet. But genetic mixing doesn't work like paint. Or at least I think it doesn't.


We sailed on to a beach on the northwest side of Santa Cruz, where turtles nest. This was turtle mating season, and the females were coming back to the beaches of their birth. The males were following the females to wherever they went.

As we approached this pristine golden sand beach, chugging through the aqua water, we actually could see about 12 to 15 turtles swimming around in the bay!!!! Even better, there were two turtles on the beach!!! Not laying eggs, they usually do that at night so the nest is hidden. The female turtles come up on the beach and check out the best areas to dig their nests - high enough to be beyond the high tide mark, but close enough to the beach that the hatchlings will have a chance to reach the water before being eaten by the birds or crabs or whatever.
We walked up and down the beach, watching the turtles meet and greet and size each other up, sort of the speed dating of the turtle world. Well, and the speed hooking up and mating of the turtle world too. It was fascinating but also a bit voyeuristic to watch - although I've never seen turtles mating, so it also was difficult to NOT watch as they hugged and wrestled and rolled in the surf. With, apparently, only one thing on their minds.

No, these aren't giant tire tracks on the sand. That's what turtle tracks look like. Some seemed to go right up to the soft sand, where maybe a nest was
dug and the eggs covered up. Other tracks went in circles or along the edge of the bush while mama turtle looked for a good spot. 
The hatchlings will climb out of the nests some time between January and March, the warmest months here in the Galápagos.
It really was one of the most gorgeous, idyllic beaches and bays I've ever seen, with such clean clear aqua water merging into the deep blue, the golden sand, and bright green trees edging the beach. Unfortunately, there were also biting horse flies, so even paradise has its problems.

But it was just postcard perfect!
We motored across the channel between Santa Cruz and Pinzon, which was a bit rough since this is the windward side of the island. We arrived at Pinzon and the Bay of Penguins, but never did see any of the Galápagos penguins.

Apparently this El Niño, being one of the strongest on record, has heated up the water too much for the
comfort of the penguins. They seem to all have moved from their usual little clusters to colder areas of the islands. So no, we didn't see any of the penguins.
But there were seals on the rocks, fish swimming under the boat, turtles surfacing to give us a look, and even a friendly pelican who came by to see if we were good for a free snack.

Everyone went snorkeling except us, and they all came back with blue lips. Even
Fabricio agreed that the water was colder than usual, making us quite happy we opted to stay dry and not freeze in the water.

And none of the
snorkelers saw penguins swimming around, either. Although they saw quite a few sharks. Yeah, one more reason I was okay with not snorkeling. Sharks make me nervous.

It was quite a trip back - once we hit open ocean, the swells were probably 4 to 5 feet (1.3 to 1.6 meters), which we really felt in
the little boat. We'd sweep up to the crest of a wave and then drop and crash into the trough before riding up to the top of the next wave. I enjoy the roller-coaster quality of rough seas, although the occasional slam down into the trough would be a bit much. But Richard feels the motion more than most people, and he wasn't the happiest of sailors on this part of the trip back.

Our captain and guide agreed that it was an unusually rough crossing.

Anyway, we finally got back to Puerto Ayora, and onto warm dry steady land. A relief after rocking and rolling and bouncing our way back.

After having seen the blue-footed boobies close up, I realized that some of the fishing birds we've seen in town are also the blue-footed boobies. They really are fascinating to watch. First, they have a very awkward lift-off from the water - they don't just spread their wings and fly, they kind of run on top of the water while flapping their wings, and it takes a little distance before they actually get up in the air! All I can think is that maybe they have a low center of gravity?

Then a group of boobies flies around, wheeling in one direction or another; then they fly up as a group, one boobie gives a shriek, and as a group they all dive beak first into the water, like synchronized divers in the birdie Olympics. They bounce back up to the surface in a group and sit there, looking around, as the fish who are dazed and confused swim around, and are more easily caught and eaten. I watched them do this over and over again, diving into different areas so the fish wouldn't learn what was going on.

And if you look closely at the booby take-off photos, you can see those little blue webbed feet running on the water!

On the map, I've marked Isla Pinzon with a little blue star. It's to the west of Santa Cruz, but before Isla Isobela (which is the one that looks vaguely like a seahorse). I don't know where the other stops were that we made on Thursday.

But Turtle Love Beach really was the absolute best ever! 

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